By Chung Ah-young
When Herta Muller won the 2009 Nobel Prize for literature by the Swedish Academy, she was described her as a writer, ``Who, with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed.’’
Now her two powerful books ― “Niederungen’’ (Nadirs) and “Atemschaukel’’ (Everything I Possess I Carry With Me) ― have finally been translated into Korean by the Munhakdongne for the first time. ``Niederungen’’ was her debut work published in 1982 in Romania, while ``Atemschaukel’’ is her newest novel released last year. The publication of the two novels gives Korean readers an opportunity to compare her literature world from her early stages to the present day.
The Romania-born German author will also come to Korea to participate in the 19th Congress of the International Comparative Literature Association, which will be held from Aug. 15 to 21 at Chung-Ang University in Seoul. Before her visit, three more of her novels will be translated into Korean.
“Niederungen’’ is a collection of 19 short stories based in a German-speaking village in 1950s Romania. The book was published four years after (1982 in Romania) it was first written because of the government censorship, and the publication didn’t include four of the 19 stories and some of the others were altered.
In 1984, when the book was released in Germany, the literature circle was shocked by the aesthetic voice, and it was banned from publication by the Romanian government. The Korean version has restored all 19 short stories reviewed by Muller herself.
“Niederungen’’ reflects her autobiographical stories of her childhood and portrays the bleak peasant life of German-descended villagers through the eye of a girl living in Banat, Romania. Indifference, drinking, violence and poverty prevail in the village. The girl suffers from domestic violence and her mother spends her time cleaning the house to forget her husband’s abuse. In that harsh reality, the girl finds comfort in the fields and rivers. The author’s powerful language creates surrealistic and dreamy images, turning to poetic expressions to depict instability and imagination in terse and short sentences.
Not only “Niederungen’’ but also other stories in the collection dictate the tradition and customs people stick to, featuring social and political satire.
``Atemschaukel’’ is her representative work that portrays a 17-year-old boy who was forcibly taken to a labor camp by Russian soldiers. In the novel, the boy’s life is explored through powerful but poetic and delicate language.
The novel is actually based on the late Romanian-German poet Oskar Pastior’s testimony of his real experiences in the camp. Muller’s mother also worked in the labor camp in Ukraine for five years.
From 2001, the author started talking to survivors of labor camps from World War II and recorded her conversations with them. Amid her research, she found that Pastior also experienced the camp and decided to co-write a novel. However, Pastior passed away in 2006, so she finished the novel on her own and released it in 2009.
The story tells of the monotonous and painful routine in the camp in which the boy oscillates between life and death. Even after he returns home, he cannot rid himself of the fears residing deep in his inner being. The novel also shows the traumatic stigma deeply engrained in the survivors.
The author creates new poetic words and symbols, displaying her aesthetic elements to weave the tale of the boy’s destiny and reality.
The Munhakdongne is also offering a guide leaflet carrying explanations about the books with interview articles on Muller and other columns written by Korean writers about her.
``Voices of the minorities … The images in which Muller continues to show through her writings are the very voices. Her voices constitute the pictures full of poetic images,’’ Korean poet Huh Su-gyung wrote in her column about Muller’s work.
``Her stories are grueling. I closed the book frequently because I couldn’t continue to read anymore because of its heart-breaking story but I had to open it again because of her irresistible beautiful poetic language,’’ she wrote.
Muller was born in a German-speaking family in Banat in Romania in 1953. After refusing to cooperate with the censorship of her novels and the Romanian secret service, the author was subsequently banned from publishing in her homeland and had to live under persecution and supervision.
She went into exile to Germany in 1987, and now lives in Berlin. Since 1989 she has been guest professor at universities in England, the United States, Switzerland and Germany.
Muller has been awarded prizes such as the Berliner Literaturpreis in 2005, the Franz Kafka prize in 1999, and, most recently, the prize of the Dusseldorf Heinrich Heine Society in 2009 for her novels and collections of essays.